Julia Gillard "on the menu": Three cheers for a bit of in-your-face, no-frills sexism

The party fundraiser menu that offered to "serve up" parts of Australian PM Julia Gillard was offensive, no doubt about it. But it's refreshing to see some honest, in-your-face sexism for a change, rather than the kind that flies under the radar.

Hooray for Mal Brough and his Liberal party fundraiser menu of boorish bigotry! At long last, we get to see a bit of honest sexism in action! Admittedly, it’s not all that impressive – just some lazy mockery of Australian PM Julia Gillard because she’s got wimmin’s bits (snigger) – but at least it makes a change. Enough of all that vague is-it-isn’t-it sexism that haunts so many women throughout their dealings with “enlightened” men. Here’s some of the real stuff, stuff that can’t be shrugged off with “well, it’s evolution” or “it’s because you have babies” or “it’s only banter”. With sexism like this you know where you are.

One doesn’t have to hold Julia Gillard aloft as a “feminist hero” to support her claim that she’s a victim of straightforward misogyny. Do male politicians get served up as metaphorical pieces of meat, their sexual organs ridiculed and dissected? Do they live in fear of what Harriet Harman might do with a chipolata? I think not. Regardless of whether Gillard has any of these attributes, there’s nothing wrong in having “small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box” – but there’s definitely something wrong in reducing a woman to this alone, regardless of her politics. 

And yet a bit of me thinks it could be worse. Most sexism flies under the radar or rather, we see it but we manage to explain it away. At least when someone is openly sexist we’re offered a means of restarting a debate which those in power – mostly male – have long since declared closed. Having been announced “winners“ in the battle for equality we’re usually expected to slink off home while the men carry on talking. Yet just every now and then, the fragility of our victory is exposed in a way that very few people can deny (still, best to not over-react, ladies. You don’t want to be accused of playing the “gender card” since that’ll mean you’re back in the wrong even more swiftly than usual).

All forms of sexism are rubbish, but I can’t help feeling barefaced chauvinism is less rubbish than the other forms. More often than not, we experience prejudice but there’s nothing we can say, let alone do. I suspect men like Brough have no idea of the degree to which women end up telling themselves this or that “didn’t count” as proper sexism. It makes life more bearable when you’re powerless anyhow. If you’re just a woman to begin with, at least don’t be a whiney woman who wastes her time blaming the patriarchy for everything or indeed anything. Just work on those alternative explanations. After all, that’s what everyone else is doing. 

We know that some forms of sexism – and other forms of prejudice - are completely hidden from the victim; the way someone’s assessment of a CV might change depending on the name at the top, for instance. The rest of the time, you half-know that prejudice is there but it’s embedded in so many other things - flawed human interactions, financial dependencies, personal insecurities – that it would take a huge amount of courage and conviction to do anything about it. After all, how can you truly know what’s going on? Unless you are a perfect human being, how can you strip out the sexism and hold it up for independent analysis? Sure, you’re not being treated fairly – but perhaps you’d still be held in low esteem even if that wasn’t the case. The actual impact of an individual instance of sexist behaviour is hard to measure. It tends to be a tainted specimen. “Reasonable” sexists know this – and so too do their victims.

There is almost always a reason why sexism isn’t sexism. It’s “just his background, just the way he talks, he didn’t mean it like that, silly you for taking offence”. Or maybe “it was like that in the seventies, a different culture, you can’t judge these things by your standards”. Or perhaps “the women don’t put themselves forward, it’s not our banter that’s to blame, just their failure to assert themselves”. Or “we take ever complaint seriously… apart from the complaints about the complaints that we didn’t take seriously at all”. The list is goes on and on.

Part of the work of feminism remains teasing this out, identifying sexism for what it is, showing that even if it appears to be compromised by real life it’s still worth challenging, if not in a court of law, then at least in terms of how people think and feel. It’s not enough to persuade people they aren’t being discriminated against if they’re still being left at a disadvantage. It’s not enough to assume you’re acting as if all things were equal when you can’t be bothered to try and make them so. And thus, while it’s a strange relief to see a bit of in-your-face, no-frills sexism once in a while, let’s keep on questioning any act that has some basis in the belief that women are inferior. This conversation needs to continue even when sexism isn’t handed to us on a plate. 

Julia Gillard. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.